This is one of over 230 illuminations depicting episodes from the Old and New Testaments. The illuminations are assembled in a manuscript known as the Holkham Bible Picture Book, and were probably made for a wealthy patron in fourteenth-century England.
The illumination shows Herod’s birthday celebrations at a richly laden banquet table, with the king and his wife Herodias feasting among a group of courtiers in fashionable fourteenth-century dress.
To the left of the table, Herodias’s young daughter performs her dance for Herod. As in the Scriptures, she remains nameless in the short text accompanying the image. She is depicted balancing on her hands, arching her back, and throwing her feet backwards into mid-air as if to perform a somersault. Such acrobatic entertainment would have been familiar to a medieval audience from the performances of jugglers, acrobats, and dancers at real-life festivities.
Dance had an ambivalent status in medieval Europe. While the Christian church conceived of the harmonious movements of angels and righteous souls in Paradise as an expression of mystical joy in the presence of God, dance on earth—especially when demonstrating exaggeration of movement—was often interpreted as a sign of a socially and morally reprehensible character, as a sign of an unstable soul, and even as a sign of madness. Medieval artists therefore often depicted Herodias’s daughter performing the elaborate contortions of a juggler to convey the ambiguity of her dance and character—both thought to have contributed to John the Baptist’s death.
In the Holkham Bible, the girl’s ambiguous role is further enhanced by juxtaposing the moment of her dance with the moment she receives Herodias’s instruction to ask for John the Baptist’s head as her reward. Using the narrative device of simultaneity, the painter shows the girl kneeling in front of the banquet table, where she obediently receives her mother’s orders, and is thus transformed into a murderous weapon.
Baert, Barbara. 2013–14. ‘“The Daughter Came in and Danced’: Revisiting Salome’s Dance in Medieval and Early Modern Iconology’, Jaarboek Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen s.n.: 152–92
Klapisch-Zuber, Christiane and Susan Emanuel. 2017. ‘Salome’s Dance’, Clio: Women, Gender, History, 46: 186–97
6But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Heroʹdi-as danced before the company, and pleased Herod, 7so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. 8Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” 9And the king was sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given; 10he sent and had John beheaded in the prison, 11and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother.
21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and the leading men of Galilee. 22For when Heroʹdi-as’ daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will grant it.” 23And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24And she went out, and said to her mother, “What shall I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25And she came in immediately with haste to the king, and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26And the king was exceedingly sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27And immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard and gave orders to bring his head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother.